Having a Ball, by Pin-ing "Mr. Television" down to a new Strike of Fun in Rolling a Spare network Frame into a Perfect 300 Score!
When asked about remembering this show, a few folks have just about called me a liar for 'claiming' that it ever existed. I can't really fault them, though. For this Bowling/Comedy/Celebrity format does sound a bit screwy, if not outright impossible.
Well, most people of the proper age do express a knowledge of its existence and even some fond memory of it. When all is considered, this 1/2 hour is to Uncle Miltie what YOU'RE IN THE PICTURE is the career and legacy of "the Great One", Jackie Gleason.
It was a TV regular at the Ryan's. It lasted only one season in the Chicago market, as far as I know. It was a in a prime time slot, being the 9:30-10:00 P.M. C.S.T. It was a novelty piece of programing on the NBC Television Network, which was Channel 5, Station WNBQ*, here in the Windy City.
Why the decision to put this on the network? Well, let us give It a shot! In Chicago our local NBC affiliate carried it. Remember, Bowling was really popular in the 1950's, as an activity and as a spectator sport. It enjoyed a really healthy period of growth and expansion in the Post War years. Starting in 1945 and continuing for at least 20 years, our Nation saw a great amount of building of new Super Sized modern, air conditioned "Recreation Centers", which was a polite term for a giant, 2 storied Bowling Alley. They usually also had a section of the premises devoted to billiards, or pool.
These new, Air-Conditioned pleasure palaces also featured the most revolutionary wonder invention, the greatest thing since The Metric System, The Monorail and Esperanto! And that would be the AMF Automatic Pin Setting machine. There would still be "Pin Boys", but the business of resetting after a frames' completion was now greatly sped up.**
Most Bowling Alleys seemed to go and get modernized very quickly, the automatic lanes being commonplace in the mid 1950's.** And, as previously stated, Bowling as a Spectator Sport was very popular indeed during this period. We had Bowling Shows the local TV stations late Saturday evening, Sunday morning and late evening. Our local Play by Play Announcer/Commentator was truly a Legendary Figure in Chicago Radio/TV Sports, one "Whispering" Joe Wilson, himself! This network JACKPOT BOWLING, was something different with a special set of problems.
The main obstacle to be overcome was that Network Programing almost always ended at 11:00 P.M. EST, 10:00 P.M. here, in the Midwest. So the Network show lacked the freedom that the local programmer regularly exercised. That is scheduling the Local Bowling presentations to a time after the nightly 11:00/10:00 News Reports. The Network Scheduler was "stuck" with the problem of having mainly Primetime at their disposal!(Hmmm, some dilemma!) The addition of the Comedy/Interview time with Mr. Berle gave this a real shot of originality. It brought in legions of viewers who wouldn't have tuned in otherwise.
As I recall, the 1/2 hour usually went something like this.
When the show began, the 2 competing Bowlers were already in a game that was in progress, being about half way through it. This in progress game was the middle game of a 3 game series, the first one having been done way before the cameras rolled.*** After completion of the middle game, it was time for Uncle Miltie to do his thing. A celebrity "guest Bowler" was introduced and after several minutes of give and take schtick, the guest would get 1 roll of the ball for his favourite Charity. The amount of cash provided by sponsor, Phillies Cigars,being determined by the number of pins knocked down! Then, back to Chic Hearn and the concluding 3rd game of the match, interviews, prize money disbursed, more happy talk and sign off 'til next week.
It was unfortunate that the series had such a short run. The guest stars' portion was the best and most interesting. In addition to seeing Milton Berle working, we were treated to seeing some very interesting and hereto-for unknown actors, singers and mainly,it seems, comedians. The 2 shows that come to mind featured Jerry Lewis one week and The Ritz Brothers another time.
When Jerry appeared, he was well known to virtually all viewers; being that Mr. Lewis was then at the very pinnacle of his career. After the customary see-sawing back and forth comedy extemporaneous routines, it was time for the one roll for Charity.
At this time Jerry presented a 2 bowling ball connected by a 3 or 4 far foot bar. The contraption looked like an Olde Time Strongmasn's Barbell, the 2 balls being just far enough apart to fit in both gutters. Hence, Jerry's double gutter ball got all the pins.
Another week had as guests the 3 Ritz Brothers,Al, Harry and Jimmy. After their go round with Berle, Harry did the Charity Roll. And he gave it his all! A running sort of standard delivery let his strides carry him just about half way down the alley, where Harry fell forward, released the ball. The result-a Strike! This was the first time that I had ever seen the Ritz Brothers and to this day, that was one of the funniest things this kid ever saw.
* The call letters were later changed to WMAQ, those of the NBC Radio Station that gave birth to our local TV outlet. WMAQ Radio is no more, so the Family Name was carried on!
** Would you believe we still had manual pinsetters & Pin Boys at in the late 1960's at our neighborhood's Queen's Bowling Alley, 63rd & Ashland in Chicago!
*** Bowling as a spectacle was much bigger in the'50's. We could name many Pro Bowlers of that period, but could think of no current ones.
**** This joined in progress technique was common in that '50's-'60's era, used mainly to pique public interest.
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